American Horror Story, Ep. 1.10, “Smoldering Children”: What now? Cards?

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American Horror Story Review, Season 1, Episode 10, “Smoldering Children”
Written by James Wong
Directed by Michael Lehmann
Airs Wednesdays at 10:00 pm ET on FX

Warning: Spoilers

There’s very little to complain about in “Smoldering Children.” The wonderfully directed episode is a highlight of the season that wraps up several mysteries, moves the plot in exciting directions, and leaves you wishing Constance were the main character.

The opening flashback to 1994 finds itself in the house with Larry, Constance and her children. The scene brings back Adelaide who hasn’t been around for five weeks. She has few lines in the dinner scene, but they’re enough to make her character missed.

As rare a treat it is to see all these characters interact with each other, the real reason for this flashback is more sinister as it explains how Larry got his burns. The rest of the episode devotes itself to Ben’s penance to his family and his plans for improving their living situation. This week also follows Constance’s struggles with the law, Larry’s sacrifice for love and Violet’s somber revelation.

Writer James Wong gives Constance more to do this week than just play the creepy lady next door. Her past finally starts to catch up with her as she jumps through the legal hoops of homicide accusations. This plotline also puts Larry to work, allowing him to branch out from his one-dimensional rut. There was a touching moment when Larry is in the basement and talks with the recently deceased Travis. As much as Larry pines for Constance, he still finds compassion for her former lover. He also has a chance to see his also deceased family again. It’s a brief scene, but it works to set Larry in a different light. He’s not quite a victim, but he’s definitely not a villain as he once was at the beginning of the season.

Jessica Lange is amazing, but that’s nothing new. It’s still fun to watch her play the darkly operatic tones of Constance. She steals every scene and takes it in the most uncomfortable of directions. Unlike Larry, Constance is a cruel and unapologetic character. Lange had her figured out from the very beginning for every action feels perfectly calculated. The final scene between the two characters in the prison beautifully illustrates this.

As great as the final scene is, the best part of the episode is Violet’s revelation of her own death. Though this was predicted weeks ago, it wasn’t too obvious. This suspicion, especially in the first half of this episode, makes the big reveal all the more difficult to bear. When Violet finally sees her body, it’s powerfully tragic. It’s an interesting moment, because even though her soul is safe (for now), seeing her hidden corpse is no less disturbing.

Even more impressive was the direction of the scene. Director Michael Lehmann didn’t opt for a cheap scare with Violet’s lifeless face. It is one the scariest visuals of this show, but is presented in a very conservative fashion. Ironically, It’s dragged out a bit, playing the horror more subtly than similar scenes in other horror movies, like the beginning of The Ring (girl in closet).

But no, the scene takes its time and braces the audience for the body by revealing it in a long shot first. After allowing the audience to take in the initial shock, it then pushes in to a gritty close-up. The reserved score allows the raw image to take effect without overdramatizing it. When the audience sees the body again in another long shot, there’s no score at all, just some off-screen dialogue. It renders the image less horrific while amplifying the melancholic nature of Violet’s lonely and forgotten body.

The next scene with Violet and Tate takes this momentum of melancholy and uses it to punctuate the sad realization of Violet’s death. She’s a prisoner, and she knows it. Taissa Farmiga’s facial expressions really sell the despondency imploding within her character. It’s subtle, because she never actually expresses disappointment with the idea of spending forever with Tate. Yet, it’s obvious she’s already lamenting her eternal future.

The show then takes a minute to explore this post-climactic “now-what?” atmosphere, joining Violet and Tate to play a dull game of cards. As bizarre as the situation is, this scene is a reality check for Violet and the audience. It places the audience in Violet’s shoes by imprisoning it in a moment void of any romance or adventure. Just cards. Because now, what’s left for her besides this?

Violet’s death does solve one problem by promising to keep Vivien in the house. Vivien will likely stay when she learns of Violet’s death and her imprisoned spirit. It will also be interesting to see how Ben will explain Violet’s dead body to the juvenile court, but this feels like season two territory.

With the last two episodes approaching, it’s difficult to predict how the season will resolve. The show has already wrapped up the mystery of Rubber Man and Violet’s fate. Even the finale, titled Afterbirth, alludes to the aftermath of an arc-long event. Where is this show going? Where do you want it to go? Leave your comments in the box below.

Ryan Clagg

6 Comments
  1. Ken says

    I’m not sure if I’d be completely happy with the idea of seeing a new cast each season. The main reason I like watching good tv shows over movies is the continuity they bring. Sure, the house is the focal point but so are the characters. Also, it would be disastrous for the show if Jessica Lange left, she’s like the glue that holds the house together…literally!

  2. Mario in Philly says

    I think that would be a great idea to have a whole new, completely different cast, set-up and story location for each season. I thought I read that Jessica Lange only signed on for one season, so maybe that can happen. I’d hate to see them drag out the story and see it become less interesting. Contact Ryan Murphy asap!

  3. Ken says

    Hi Ryan, another great writing piece. I wouldn’t normally comment but I felt compelled to for this, it’s the first thing I check every Friday!

    One point I did like to make was you mentioned how Ben would deal with Violet in season two. I may be wrong but I swear I read somewhere that the writers were finishing with the Harmon family at the end of season one, hence the ”afterlife” episode which signals a resolution rather than a cliffhanger.

    A second season could introduce a new family, while the Harmon’s could still be present (at least in spirit form). As much as I like the character of Ben, I just can’t see him surviving beyond the first season. I’m sure his pyromania will resurface, or hoping to at least after previous indications have alluded to anyway.

    Looking forward to next week..keep up the good work!

    Ken

    1. Ryan Clagg says

      Thanks, Ken. Glad to have you as a reader.

      At first, I thought the show would actually deal with a new situation every episode, like “The Twilight Zone” or “Tales From The Crypt.” I’m glad to hear that they could change it up next season. I like the Harmons, but it would be hard to keep this story line fresh for several years. I think the change of pace next season would be a smart move. I welcome it.

      As for Ben’s pyromania. I hope they do bring it back. It doesn’t make sense now that Larry wasn’t really a pyromaniac himself. So I’d like to see how they resolve this issue.

  4. Ryan says

    Thanks, Mario in Philly. That scene with Violet running in and out of the house was so surreal and awesome. It felt like something from “Once Upon A Time.”

    I think Tate attacks Ben to aid in his plan to ease Violet into the afterlife. Tate was trying to convince her to “commit suicide,” and Ben would have surely interfered.

    And yeah, I think Vivien will show sympathy toward the spirit-child. I think they’ll really play up “mother’s bond” theme and take the perspective that it’s not the child’s fault that it’s supposedly evil.

  5. Mario in Philly says

    Nice write up! The scene with Violet continually running out the door and back in the other door was mezmerizing and nicely reflected her confusion, ultimately leading to her awareness.
    Not exactly clear on why Tate attacks Ben — is he punishing Ben for the pain he’s has caused the family, an in particular Violet?
    And perhaps Vivien will be a mother to her spirit-child, just like Rosemary chose to be a mother to her baby.

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